Two Armenian customs officers have been arrested on charges of accepting bribes by smugglers to allow illegal tax-free imports of Azerbaijani apples to the country.
The apples bearing Azerbaijani labels were first discovered in some food stores in Yerevan late last month, causing a stir in the Armenian press and on social media. Some commentators decried the discovery on moral grounds, saying Armenia must not buy any products from a country with which it remains in a de facto state of war.
Many others pointed out that the imported apples were not taxed and did not undergo mandatory safety inspections at the border. The Armenian State Service for Foodstuff Safety cited this fact when it confiscated hundreds of kilograms of the fruit from stores and markets.
The State Revenue Committee (SRC), which comprises the national customs service, officially stated on April 26 that its customs checkpoints on Armenia’s borders with Georgia and Iran did not formally process any Azerbaijani imports. It said afterwards that customs officers at the Bagratashen border crossing with Georgia took kickbacks to allow the smuggling of the apples.
Armenia’s Special Investigative Service (SIS) announced on Thursday that two officers have been arrested and charged with bribery. It claimed that the officers, identified only by their initials, were bribed to make sure that “various types of fruits and vegetables, including Azerbaijani apples” are not taxed by the customs and checked by food safety inspectors at Bagratashen.
An SIS statement did not specify the amount of the alleged bribes or the physical volume of the smuggled agricultural produce.
The law-enforcement agency reported on Wednesday that criminal charges have been levelled against four other persons who it said smuggled the Azerbaijani apples via Georgia from January through April. It accused them of evading more than 7.3 million drams ($15,000) in taxes.
The head of the SRC, Vartan Harutiunian, took responsibility for the alleged smuggling operations at a news conference held earlier on Thursday. “Perhaps it was also my failing,” he said.
Harutiunian bristled at reporters’ suggestions that nobody would have been prosecuted had media and ordinary citizens not cried foul. “What’s wrong with the fact our society is so sensitive that it sees every crime?” he said. “I find it positive?”
The tax and customs chief also said that customs controls at Bagratashen and other border crossings have been tightened as a consequence of the smuggling scandal.
Armenian law allows tax-free imports of up to 50 kilograms of agricultural goods by private individuals. Many residents of villages close to the Georgian border have long taken advantage of this legal provision, including for commercial purposes. Some of them staged a protest near the Bagratashen checkpoint last week, saying that customs officers are now forcing them to pay taxes.
Harutiunian essentially confirmed and defended his subordinates’ actions. “Should we let them bring in 50 kilograms [of produce] 20 times a day?... This is what they want,” he claimed.